Wednesday, March 05, 2014
Wednesday, February 26, 2014
I have had the good fortune of seeing several living legends in concert. Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart, Peter, Paul & Mary, David Bowie--some lived up to their legendary status, others have not. How they do isn't entirely the point; the point is to participate, to have a point of contact with someone who in small and big ways marks our cultural history for us. But most of them were awesome anyway. Last night I got to kill two old birds, Sting and Paul Simon, with one rock show at Chicago's United Center. Sting--the lead singer, bassist and main songwriter from one of my favorite bands, the Police, whose solo work was always in the background of my late adolescence and early adulthood, eluded me for years before I finally first saw him perform in the late 1990s. He's a true artist, regularly reinventing his songs and reconstructing his band accordingly--as a saxophonist, for example, I was sad when he parted ways with Branford Marsalis and started favoring the trumpet in his arrangements. The trumpet! I suppose I'll still listen ... Paul Simon is, it turns out, one of Sting's "mentors," an idol even to other idols. His music didn't just shape me, it shaped a generation--two generations, actually, as his constructive engagement of African musicians in the 1980s was as influential as his New York folk standards from the 1960s and 1970s. I sat next to a woman probably ten to fifteen years older than I am; we sang along to many different songs, but we sang along together to even more. I like the premise of a show like this. It requires a level of musical maturity and mutuality; Simon must appreciate Sting as much as Sting appreciates Simon; Sting must take ownership of Simon's songs as freely as Simon does his. And then, of course, they have to blend with one another. In this case, that's no mean feat: far beyond the typical pop orchestration--drums, bass, guitar, keyboard--each artist's repertoire required a wide range of additional instrumentation. Their bands had to learn one another's songs, had to gel with one another, the musical equivalent of Simon's lyric from "America": "Let us be lovers; we'll marry our fortunes together." Two bands become one band, never losing their own identities, creating something new and dynamic and meaningful.
It's everybody jump start It's every generation throws a hero up the pop charts Medicine is magical and magical is art The Boy in the Bubble and the baby with the baboon heart And I believe these are the days of lasers in the jungle-- Lasers in the jungle somewhere Staccato signals of constant information A loose affiliation of millionaires and billionairesIn contrast to Sting's radio-friendly list, Simon went for a few deep tracks. I took notes for each tune, but what I wrote down for a whole set from him was not song titles but phrases like "Some zydeco song" and "Some song about wandering in Mexico." He has enough gravitas that he could get away with it; we followed him wherever he took us. (It's probably worth noting that I'm much more familiar with Sting's discography than Simon's, so what counts as a deep track to me might be very familiar to Simon diehards, and similarly, I might be misremembering a few Sting songs as chart-topping that were, in reality, B-sides or even more arcane.) Anyway, here are some of my highlights: * Paul Simon, dancing wildly backstage as Sting performed "Walking on the Moon. * Sting performing a tender version of Simon's "America," which suddenly exploded into a raucous rendition of "Message in a Bottle." * Simon pivoting from a Chet Atkins instrumental ("Wheels") into the Latin-flavored, drum-heavy groove "The Obvious Child." * Simon and Sting wrapping "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and moving straight into "Every Breath You Take." * Simon and Sting closing the night with a tribute to the late Phil Everly, "When Will I Be Loved."
Monday, February 17, 2014
Jordan Davis is dead. A hung jury won't change that. Several guilty verdicts of attempted murder won't change that. Repealing or otherwise reforming Florida's Stand Your Ground law won't change that. Nothing will change it. Jordan Davis is dead, the latest in a tragically long list of young black men who died violently because someone supposedly felt threatened by them. I think of the black men I know--of Napoleon and Leroy and Anthony and Ed and John and Romal and Alvin and others--and I can't imagine anyone feeling threatened by them. They're too good, too friendly, too gracious. I think of what the world would have lost if they'd been shot dead when they were young, what the world would lose today if they were shot dead. I can't imagine it. And yet everyone is a stranger more regularly than they are a friend. For a country of nearly half a billion people, these men I call friends are unfamiliar to most. And so it remains a risk for my friends to go anywhere, to do anything. A broad cultural imagination, dominated by white culture with its insidious, festering prejudices, has presumed them guilty rather than innocent, has randomly (and not so randomly) partitioned off the land into places they belong and places they don't belong. As a white man I go pretty much anywhere I want; black men find out after the fact where they are welcome and where they are unwelcome, in often humiliating and sometimes violent ways. They are presumed guilty by the music they listen to, by the volume they set their music at, by the style of their clothes, by the cars they drive, and most fundamentally by the color of their skin. Murder trials that end in acquittals reinforce the tragic mythology, so obvious and yet so rarely acknowledged, that we have made this a white man's world, and black men are trespassing in it. It's an irony that our courts function under the presumption of innocence, and yet for black men in particular our streets function under the presumption of guilt. I'm not immune to this; I have absorbed the cultural portrait of black men as dangerous, and in weaker, shameful moments I allow it to color my perceptions of reality. But I hope that more often than not I resist this indoctrination and give black men the benefit of the doubt. And when I do, more often than not I discover a friend worth having, a man worth admiring--men like Napoleon and Leroy and Anthony and Ed and John and Romal and Alvin and others, whom I'm fortunate to know. I guess, in the wake of the murder of Jordan Smith and the trial that culminated in calling his violent death not a murder, I hope that all of us who are not black men will take our cues not from an insidiously racialized white culture but from the courts. I hope we will extend to black men the courtesy extended by the courts to people like Michael Dunn (who shot Jordan dead) and George Zimmerman (who shot Trayvon Martin dead). I hope we will resist the impulse to presume guilt when we encounter black men, and commit ourselves instead to presume innocence. If we do, we may have the great honor of meeting and befriending people like Napoleon and Leroy and Anthony and Ed and John and Romal and Alvin and others. At the very least, a few young black men may have the opportunity to live a full life and share their greatness with the world. *** There's a meme running on Twitter called #dangerousblackkids. It's worth a long look. Here's an example.
Sunday, February 16, 2014
My friend Sean Gladding, one of the best people in the whole world, has written his second book, Ten: Words of Life for an Addicted, Compulsive, Cynical, Divided and Worn-Out Culture. Sean is a strong and sympathetic storyteller, helping us enter into familiar stories and even familiar theological assertions--in this case, the Ten Commandments (or Ten Words, as he prefers)--with fresh perspective. Ponderances of a Visionary. In response to the post on covetousness (the Tenth Word--Sean counts them down in reverse order), Karl offered this little ditty:
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. (Exodus 20:16, New American Standard Bible) "Maybe the Ninth Word still has something to say to us. Because all these ways of bearing false witness against each other, whether through advertising or gossip or telling racist jokes, lead to one thing: the erosion of trust. And without trust, how is it possible to have any kind of genuine communication? How is it possible to have any kind of meaningful relationships with others?" [John] reached for another book. "Truth telling is thus not a general virtue so much as it is a necessity for maintaining harmonious relationships. It is one of the clearest manifestations of love of God and love of neighbor." . . . Will interjected, . . . "A little half-truth here. A little deception there. A little doubt sown here. A little gossip there. A little rationalization, and slowly the trust necessary for relationships unravels. Everything comes undone. Every word of deception carries a price tag. Every lie. Every half-truth. Every untruth." He leaned forward. "And here's the irony of our situation. When we bear false witness against our neighbor, we think our neighbor is the one who is going to pay the price. That's why we do it. . . . But the reality is, we bear the cost." . . . "Joan Chittister says this, 'Truth is its own reward. It requires no memory. No elaborate explanations. No conspiring confederates. And no fear of exposure.' Telling the truth is liberating."So, there you have it: a taste of the Ninth Word from Sean Gladding's Ten. Now it's your turn. Fetch me an example of bearing false witness--of lying, or gossiping, or dehumanizing, or even advertising--from somewhere in the broad cultural landscape. Use the hashtag #10Cscavengerhunt. The best example gets a free copy of the book. I'll announce the winner next week. Don't worry: you can trust me. And do me and Sean a solid and spread the word about this contest; when it comes to scavenger hunts, the more the merrier, I always say. (That's a lie: I actually almost never say that.)